Each day offers an opportunity to learn something new, especially when you open a page of a book. Last night, I read an insight about architecture that sparked thought about the future of bookstores.

What do you find in a bookstore? Comfort, ideas, stories to connect us with others.

What do you find in a bookstore? Comfort, ideas, stories to connect us with others.

Stephen Mouzon has often been quoted about the mindfulness of architecture and urban design in Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TNDs). Since Mark and I moved to a TND on Amelia Island twelve years ago and now I serve as president of the neighborhood association board, I’ve loved learning about what makes us feel safe and secure and at home. “Contentment” has been a big word for me as I age, and what I value even more as the years go by is beauty, the comforts of home, and holding a book in my hands while the words enrich the moments.

Mouzon, who after years of studying neighborhoods and homes people love, has developed the leading guide to traditional home design, Traditional Construction Patterns: Design & Detail Rules of Thumb. While the last fifty years of home construction has led to McMansions, sprawl, and “hyper” buildings that have been over-designed, Mouzon helps us see how fascination with the machine became the “expression of our age.” Our obsession with technology still seems to cloud our basic human needs … and still does.

So, as BookExpo America kicks off this week in New York, I am reminded with the first time e-readers hit the trade show and how the IT professionals claimed to know the future of the book was to be purely electronic. For the last decade, many of us questioned the prediction and now, it turns out that the bookstore of the future feels a lot like the comforts of bookstores through time. While things in the back room may operate a little differently, life in the store is still thought-filled, personal, and human scale.

While we’ve all gotten used to finding (and buying) things on the web and reading online, there’s a lingering human need for people, places, and material objects in our lives that are on a tangible, knowable, and comfortable human level.

The wrap-up of our “bookstore make-over” project with Left Bank Books is now drawing near. Over the past month, we presented a detailed plan to the store’s owners, Kris and Jarek (Jay), and set a timeline for the work that needed to be done.

As a result, September has been a busy month at Left Bank Books. In addition to the make-over and their typical robust line-up of events, a lot of planning went in to the Sept. 24th hosting of Tony La Russa, former manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, who launched his memoir, One Last Strike, celebrating 50 years of his baseball career. They needed ten additional staff to accommodate the number of fans expected, and wound up selling 1,400 copies of his book!

Adding color helps define the space and helps attract customers deep into the bookstore space.

For the make-over, Jay was able to do much of the painting during the last couple of weeks and we’re already seeing results. The purpose of choosing new paint colors was to delineate different areas of the store, since it had grown to occupy three storefronts over time. The first two sections are separated by a wall with beautiful curves and architectural detail at the top. Our design team selected a paint color called “camelback” to help those details stand out a bit more, lending a softer feeling to the store than the stark white that had been on all the walls and ceiling. Then, to attract customers’ eyes and pull them to the back of the store, the team chose a “reflecting pool” color (aqua blue) for the back wall which will soon house two important departments: Children’s and Comforts of Home. Two other colors were introduced as well: a sassy green for the front entrance, and a “cajun red” for some display tables.

For stores like Left Bank that have been in business for years, it’s fairly common to find them feeling a bit too full. Spinner racks and publisher “dumps” find their way onto the sales floor, but never seem to leave. One section spills over to another and starts to feel disconnected. So in addition to suggesting new paint colors, some accent lighting, and calling more attention to the staircase leading to the store’s lower level, perhaps the most important part of the make-over was to re-imagine the planogram – moving sections around for better traffic flow and dedicating a larger space for the children’s department. A planogram is just a simple term for the map that shows what goes where, using prime spaces judiciously and grouping like products based on who shops there. It’s a fun exercise that begins with a review of sales and inventory turns by section.

Working at the mall back in the 1970s, I never realized that the skills I was learning – working with a planogram and seeing how displays were planned during the buying season – would be put to such good use decades later. As the seasons change and as a store grows through the years, it’s a good idea to start fresh with a blank canvas and decide how much to invest in which types of merchandise … and change the sales floor to reflect the inventory and merchandise mix.

The two areas at Left Bank Books that I get most excited about are the front entrance and the children’s area. Yesterday I stopped by our local upholstery store to look for some fabric to cover the seat of an adorable wooden rocking chair that Kris discovered. The striped fabric was perfect complement to all the colors we selected for the store.

With a little bit of paint, fabric, some new lighting, and a new planogram, Left Bank Books is well on the way to looking dramatically different. We’ll return to the store on October 10th to work with the staff on rearranging some sections, put some finishing touches on focal point displays, and listen for customers who say, “What a great bookstore!”

People who read and especially those who own bookstores are very special souls. Last week we held our spring workshop retreat and while we never really know how the group will relate and how the week will unfold, we are always reminded of the magic that is created when we put our hearts and minds together on the same page.

Independent businesses, thanks to the ‘Shop Local’ movements, have been gaining momentum. But at the same time, people love shopping online and are growing more comfortable with hand-held technologies. The realities of high-tech influence today’s bookstores as does our continued human need for high-touch. Developing ways to address both led us into some wonderfully rich territory.

Spring Workshop Retreat Graduates

Creating a special sense of place for our community took many varied forms. One store will have a nook of comic books and action figures (a passion of one of the owners). Another new store owner will stretch the world of adult fantasy and science fiction into a concept that will help children learn about science and expand their creative horizons. One will spotlight works by local artists. Still another will focus on healthy (and happy) living. And then there’s another who will explore publishing on local topics.

What’s emerging is an ever-larger way of looking at what a bookstore does, what it carries, and how it serves. Today’s bookstore is not just about coming in to pick a book off the shelf. It’s about catering to a lifestyle, sharing interests, and creating a gathering place. Merchandise selections go beyond books. Programs are not limited to visiting authors. Sustainability rests on multiple sources of income.

While there were two people who had worked in bookstores, most had never worked in a retail setting. Sharing insights, lessons, knowledge, and wisdom from other careers, we all stretched our ideas of what a bookstore is for a community … and all the possibilities that can make indie bookstores even more fun, interesting, and vital.

The book industry is one big tent where everyone belongs. Readers tend to think and feel deeply and are interested in the big wide world of life. Unlike online stores, there’s nothing like visiting a comfy bookstore filled with wonderful items where you can simply show up and discover something that might change the course of your life. This very fact that we are readers and serve readers is what makes us optimistic about the future of bookstores.

During the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in New Orleans last month, there were high spirits — even before the first cocktail party. From the moment booksellers began arriving in the city that embodies strength and resilience, everyone began comparing notes: 2011 finished with a roar, some stores up as much as 48% in sales over 2010.

Watchung Booksellers

Watchung Booksellers, a successful neighborhood bookstore capitalizes on great service, an amazing inventory, and an inviting atmosphere

After the demise of the Borders chain, many readers sought out local indie bookstores. The American Express Small Business Saturday promotion helped educate cardholders about the value of shopping locally. And, physical books make wonderful gifts, especially when recommended by a savvy bookseller for that hard-to-please relative. All of these factors helped fuel the positive momentum.

During the conference, even more reasons for optimism surfaced. The new Verso Advertising survey indicated that while e-books have gained popularity, about 50% of people have no interest in reading on an electronic device. For avid readers who have adopted e-reading, the survey showed that they plan to purchase the same number of print books as electronic books this year. Books are a part of our material culture and the demand for printed books is not going away.

Publishers were at the convention with heart-felt support. From small presses to large publishing houses, representatives were there to give us the inside scoop on debut authors and exciting new books. It’s the glue that binds us and what gives indie booksellers an incredibly important role in the world of books. Indie booksellers, because of their passionate recommendations – that are not predicated on any computer-generated algorithm – help introduce new authors and break-out works. Without indies, we might only get to see those titles now stacked high on the floor at the warehouse clubs, or be able to sort through the kazillions of e-books online, few of which get much marketing support due to the quality of the writing.

Indie booksellers are now talking of expanding the number of locations, redesigning their current stores, and expanding events. They are changing the complexion of their inventories, spotlighting wonderful books and other fun items that reinforce the community’s character and make it fun to come to the bookstore to shop. It’s been a long haul, but people finally seem to be over the fascination with big box stores. They understand the importance of strengthening local economies, and want to find peace, comfort, and a truly good read from their locally owned bookstore.

Now that the political season is heating up, we have to wonder how we’ll ever be able to get out of the financial mess that’s affecting the entire world. What will the new economy look like and who will help create it?

America has always been a land of entrepreneurs with a “can-do” attitude. Just last week, we visited Athens, Georgia to help put the finishing touches on a new indie bookstore, founded by one of the country’s youngest bookstore entrepreneurs. We first met Janet Geddis at BookExpo in 2009 and later that year, she attended our five-day intensive workshop retreat on owning a bookstore. Attentive every moment, she took copious notes, engaged in “group think” with the class, and asked smart, timely questions about the industry.

Indie Bookstore Grand Opening

The Avid Reader opens in Athens, Georgia this week.

Her greatest challenge was the lack of start-up capital. Without it, how would Janet get this business off the ground? We knew she had the intelligence and passion to create something wonderful if she could only find the funds. What has subsequently unfolded in Athens is a story we hope to see played out in communities everywhere.

Janet relied on her personal network and social media to share her dreams with friends, neighbors, colleagues, and the local press. With an already strong ‘Shop Local’ movement, a younger and educated demographic from the University of Georgia, and an interest in grass-roots efforts, Janet was cultivating fertile ground and kept widening her network, winning fans along the way.

She started small, launching a web store to get going, showing up at festivals and other gatherings with a table to sell used books, created fund-raising events around her photographic art. She bartered, sent out ‘wish lists’ of things she needed to get the store open. She was never reluctant to ask for the help she needed. And she was determined to realize her dream – even when a bookseller from another town suddenly opened (and just as suddenly, closed).

This week, Janet will officially open Avid Bookshop in a quaint historic neighborhood of young families, professors, and students. A large replica of a colorful hot air balloon brightens the children’s room, courtesy of an artist friend. The fiction section has been personally selected by Janet and when chatting with her new staff, Tom, Sonia, and Rachel, you can foretell they will sell an amazing amount of fiction because of their passion for debut authors and taste for masterful writing. There’s a display of hand-made books created by another local artist.

It literally took a village to create an indie bookstore, and a young entrepreneur made it all happen. When we create a new economy with integrity and connection, we’re headed in the right direction — and a new generation of entrepreneurs, just like Janet, will lead the way.

What a fascinating time … and how refreshing it is to see ‘Local’ become fashionable. From Sarasota, FL to Rapid City, SD and Nantucket, MA to Bainbridge Island, WA, ‘Shop Local’ initiatives are moving full steam ahead, where residents want fewer national chains and more local flavor.

Was this predictable? Maybe in part. The last three decades brought us a deluge of stores and shopping centers that began to look the same. Perfectly coiffed with the same merchandise, their appeal didn’t have staying power. When the economy softened, corporate decisions, meant to preserve profits and shareholder investments, resulted in dark storefronts all across the country.

Bookstores sponsor events

Bookstores draw the right clientele

And who survived? The tenacious, spirited indie retailers — yes, the “Mom & Pop” stores. Not only have they weathered economic ups and downs (most recently created by the temporary deep discounting offered by the chains when they first moved to town), owners of independent businesses held on because their entire livelihood was on the line. Their commitment to community reached far beyond hitting profit targets – they were in it for the long haul.

Now that hundreds of communities are without bookstores — some driven out by the proliferation of Wall Street financed chains, and now Borders stores closing as a result of the ongoing mismanagement of the revolving executives who ran the company — there are openings for new anchors on Main Street and in retail developments from coast to coast. An independent bookstore is a wise choice to fill an opening, especially if the objective is to draw an upscale demographic.

While some would have us believe that e-books are rendering bookstores obsolete, brick-and-mortar bookstores are still relevant and here’s why. Printed books account for 85% of book sales and research now shows that those who read e-books still value — and buy — printed books. Bookstores are considered gathering places and symbolize an educated community that values learning as a lifelong endeavor. Also, people who read want to know what to read next. Independent booksellers have long been recognized for their genuine passion for books, honesty in making recommendations, and their ability to help publishers launch new writers. In most redevelopment polls, people say they most want a bookstore in their community — and will support it.

To developers and landlords, we suggest you look beyond the media’s obsession with technology to see the opportunities in your own backyard. An indie bookstore will draw the right demographic, hold a long-term commitment to the area, and will contribute to the well-being of the community.

As consumers become more and more mindful that a ‘Local’ focus helps their community, the momentum is continuing to build. To ensure that developments gain (rather than lose) appeal, you need look no further than an indie bookstore. It may require some investment and accommodation on the developer or landlord’s part to get a bookstore open for business, but its presence will generate ongoing tangible results.

It comes as no surprise to those of us in the book business that the media have devoted so much time and attention to e-readers this holiday season. After all, it’s the gadget du jour. No matter where you look, the stories appear the same … touting the multiple features, low cost, and ease of buying e-books. Why ruin a story with a strong dose of reality when it will only feel like a bucket of ice water or sound like sour grapes?

The book industry has long advocated and even embraced new formats. When paperbacks were introduced, reading became more affordable. Audio books allowed content to be enjoyed while driving or cooking and made it so much easier for the sight-impaired. E-books may be the latest format, but their emergence has opened up issues of privacy, censorship, market share, and the true costs of all that goes into publishing a book, as well as the value of an author’s intellectual property.

History has shown that Americans cherish their privacy and are careful to protect it. Yet technology is already encroaching on this coveted right, now that data mining goes beyond planting ‘cookies’ on our computers. Search Amazon.com for a book on a specific topic and you will likely find e-mail advertisements in your in-box from other companies — even if you only searched for the book and didn’t buy it.

For the most part, indie booksellers take the position that a customer’s request for a particular book should not be judged. If it’s available, they will offer to get a copy for you, even if they don’t like the book, don’t respect its premise, or agree with the ideology. In the last couple of years, Amazon.com removed listings of books from Macmillan, Ten Speed Press, and Melville House when the publishers would not agree to its terms. (Publishers felt the discount being requested was unreasonably steep.) Just like that – zap – books were censored not for content, but for demands for a higher than average profit margin.

Then there’s a question about the accuracy and integrity of industry data on e-book sales. For example, Amazon.com suggests that one way to meet their minimum order requirement for free shipping is to add cheap e-books from the public domain to your order. Since these materials don’t pay royalties and cost less than new books by living authors, adding a cheap e-book to an order still counts as one more e-book sold. We know that sales of e-books have soared, and that only adds to the media intrigue. Few know that the number is artificially inflated.

When it comes to e-book pricing, it seems that we’re in a situation where the tail is wagging the dog. Amazon.com has successfully established the average retail price of an e-book at $9.99, but how long can they plan on losing money on each new e-book sold? Not many know that the average cost to Amazon.com – even with a generous discount – is several dollars more per e-book than the sale price. From the onset, Amazon chose this pricing strategy to establish market dominance; and once that happens, prices will go up. Remember all those deep discounts the big box bookstores once offered when they were establishing stores in new markets? They eventually disappeared.

In several European countries, the law is such that companies can only discount up to 5 percent, which allows more diversity in the business community. That’s why you can travel throughout Europe and see town squares filled with independent shops and cafes. In the United States, there’s no such regulation and no limit to discounting. Corporations are better able to sustain losses until they have reached market dominance. Rarely will you find an independent business owner able or even willing to conduct business in this manner.

Technology may have improved our lives in countless ways, but it can have a negative impact as well. Issues of privacy and censorship, sustainable local communities with healthy economies, the survival of small independent business, and the vibrancy of Main Street America … all are at stake due to some of the business practices being used right now by those who have other interests than books and are not primarily devoted to the world of ideas. When profits are derived from the collection and sales of consumer data and unreasonable pricing demands, rather than a commitment to the promotion of books and reading, consumers aren’t getting the full story. It’s a teaching moment the media is missing.

Consider the fact that in today’s retail environment there’s a business whose product has only about 10% of the market share, though 27.3% of heavy users of that product wish they had such a business in their community they could patronize. This tremendous gap between market share and mind share was identified earlier this year in a study by Verso Advertising. It may come as a surprise that we’re talking about opportunities for independent bookstores. Yes, the locally-owned, community-centered shop that sells the world of ideas.

Even though the national media has proclaimed the demise of independent bookstores ever since the 1970s when small chain stores proliferated in malls across the United States, there are a number of resilient, business-minded bookstore proprietors who serve their communities, generating millions of dollars in sales and enjoying a loyal customer base. Many are considered institutions that enrich life in their communities. From sponsoring children’s storytime to book groups, hosting local writers to break-out authors, independent booksellers have continued to be recognized for their quirky individuality, passion for books and reading, and making soulful connections for their customers and communities.

Visit this year’s Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year, City Lights Books in San Francisco, or any number of remarkable indie bookstores like McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan, Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis, or Octavia Books in New Orleans. You’ll see vibrant businesses that are profitable and coveted in their communities. Ask the owners and staff about their work and you’ll likely hear they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. How many other business environments can satisfy both head and heart?

Reading has always been a popular leisure time activity for baby boomers, but thanks to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter adventures and Stephenie Meyer’s vampire sagas, new generations have discovered that reading can be a great escape. Today, books can be purchased through numerous online and chain retail outlets, yet Verso Advertising’s study has quantified preferences on where people WANT to buy books – at their local independent bookstore. Customers realize that personal recommendations, special events, and patronizing a locally-owned bookstore matters, especially among those who buy more than 10 books a year.

Where are the entrepreneurs to recognize and fill this gap? In January, hundreds of communities lost their Waldenbooks, adding even more markets where readers will only find mega-bestsellers pushed online or at the national chain superstores. Yet the media is mesmerized by the sparkle of every new gadget and can’t seem to entertain the thought that there’s a demand for reading in a variety of formats – including the tried and true book in print, which remains the format of choice by far.

Entrepreneurial opportunities await those who long for a business that can provide passion and profits. Indie bookselling certainly combines the two.